Day after day, the stunning story of young Morgan Lane Arnold has unfolded in the pages of The Baltimore Sun, with each revelation only making key elements of this bloody crime more and more mysterious. Here are some of the core details. Sometime after 4 a.m. on May 10, Arnold's boyfriend allegedly stabbed her father to death. The boyfriend told police that Arnold left a sliding door unlocked and urged him, in a barrage of personal messages, to kill her dad while he slept -- so that the youngsters could flee as a couple. The girlfriend of the divorced dad managed to escape the attack.
In a recent update, the Sun team noted -- no surprise here, in this day and age -- that Arnold had previously been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and Asperger's syndrome. Her parents had radically disagreed with one another on the prickly issue of how to treat her condition, in terms of medication, counseling and a strategy for mainstream schooling.
How much of the following information -- the overture for this latest chapter in the drama -- will surprise readers who have been paying attention to tragic news stories of this kind?
Morgan Lane Arnold, an emotionally frail 14-year-old freshman, navigated the hallways of her Howard County high school each day filled with anxiety, unable because of a learning disorder to decipher the social cues, jokes and emotions of her peers.
Her preferred environment, often accented by a Japanese anime soundtrack streaming through snug earplugs, featured a mix of fairies, mermaids and vampires, according to her mother. They were the protagonists of a digital realm where she said she was "practicing making friends" through role-playing games and social media.
"Her electronic communication devices were her world," Cindi Arnold said in an interview last week, the first extended comments since Morgan and her boyfriend were charged with murdering her father, Dennis Lane, in his Ellicott City home. "That is how she felt comfortable interacting with her peers."
So what makes this a GetReligion story? Is there a religion ghost in this tale?
I will say, right up front, that I am not sure. After the initial reports, I kept reading -- expecting a religion shoe to drop in this tragedy.
Finally, there was this, via her mother, Cindi Arnold:
As time went on, Arnold said she heard more about vampires, and eventually her daughter mentioned Satanism. The word, while extreme, didn't alarm Arnold, though she did have conversations with her daughter about it.
Morgan had always learned about the world through temporary fascinations -- at one point dinosaurs and later fairies, Arnold said. This time it was vampires and the devil, things many kids these days have interest in, she thought.
"She had this idea that there was a 'dark side,' and she was curious about that. I saw this as another exploration. I thought it was a phase," Arnold said. "Everybody's watching the 'Twilight' series, and I saw it as part of the cultural mentality of that age group."
Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who has studied teens' social media use, said interest in vampires these days is not surprising, given that they are the subject of hit TV shows such as "True Blood" and the "Twilight" movies.
"What kid isn't into vampires right now?" Rosen said. A mention of Satanism could also be a "manifestation of culture," or a sign of "something more serious," he said.
In other words, this West Coast expert said that there is pop-culture Satanism and then there is Satanism that parents should worry about.
Right. How do parents know the difference? What are the crucial signs that would tell parents that a child is close to veering over a cliff?
Of, at this point, is it judgmental for parents to worry about kid talk about Satan and the occult? Is it judgmental to suggest that this interest in a "dark side" is a clue pointing toward a state of mind that might have led this young woman to ask her first boyfriend to stab her father to death?
It's hard to know, since this is all the content the Sun team provided on this front. I find it hard to blame the newspaper for that gap, at this point in time. I would think there's a good chance that -- with prosecutors trying to nail down a motive -- that his side of the story is currently being discussed behind closed doors and only behind closed doors. Amen.
My journalistic question? Is this a religion angle or simply a pop-culture angle? Can journalists take these revelations seriously without appearing to assume that these alleged ties to Satanism were serious and/or negative? How do you cover this angle without assuming that it's real?